Leading through loss: Shape culture and policies that support grieving team members
Learn five ways to create a company culture that helps those on your team navigate loss, featuring insights from a certified grief coach.
Grief, or the emotional experience of loss, is not an easy topic for most of us to raise at work — or, really, anywhere beyond conversation with our closest connections. Even then, it can be tough.
“There is such societal discomfort with talking about grief in this country and, actually, around the world,” said Nikki Moberly, ICF PCC, CBC, a certified grief coach and executive coach. Nikki works with founders and teams to understand and work through loss. As a former tech executive who was introduced to grief work through personal experiences — which included the early death of her first husband and navigating her daughter’s complex medical diagnosis and death — Nikki has extensive knowledge of the subject.
“We’ll all face death and so many different forms of loss, from divorce to the loss of a pet to a job change," she said. "But we’re not taught how to talk about it nor how to help other people through grief. It creates a lot of angst.”
Breaking through that discomfort to acknowledge the experience of individual loss and to support teams through collective grief is, in large part, a founder’s responsibility. “Founders have a lot of power to identify and set values in this area, and employees’ expectations are changing rapidly in terms of the support they want from a company and a leader,” Nikki said.
When a leader doesn’t step up to acknowledge and support a team through grief, said Katherine Manning, author of The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job, people can feel a breach of trust that can lead to a sense of institutional betrayal. The impact to people and to the company can be significant and can affect engagement, attendance at work, productivity, and communication.
As a values-driven founder, understanding the role you play in supporting your team through grief is essential. Here are five steps you can take to create a supportive company culture and develop policies that will help folks navigate the experience of loss.
1. Understand: Opening the aperture on grief
Grief is about more than death — it can be the result of many types of loss. “We have the opportunity now, with all of the loss we’re facing individually and globally, to reframe the conversation and understand that there can be grief when people experience a loss of anything that is central to who they are,” Nikki said.
Opening the aperture to think about grief as broadly related to loss in that way allows us to see how it can result from a wide range of experiences among employees. HelpGuide offers a glimpse of just some of the events that might trigger grief for an individual, and the list is long: Divorce or breakup, loss of health, loss of a job, loss of financial stability, miscarriage, failed fertility treatment, retirement, death of a pet, a loved one’s serious illness, loss of a friendship, loss of safety after a trauma, selling a family home, and more.
It’s important to note that just as there are many unique causes of loss that lead to grief, there are also a variety of types of grief (including anticipatory grief, chronic grief, and disenfranchised grief) that can result from these experiences. As a founder, "collective grief,” which can arise when an event causes suffering in a group of people, is especially relevant to understand as you support your teams in navigating a shared loss in a work setting.
This shared sense of loss is something we’ve all experienced through the last few years, in what feels like an especially intense period of collective grief. “On top of the personal losses we all suffer, the pandemic, racial inequality, gun violence, geopolitical unrest, and financial anxiety can all result in the experience of grief,” Nikki said. Our 24-hour news cycle means many of us are aware of all of it all the time. This awareness increases the sense of loss we all feel. “We’ve all absorbed all of these various losses, and because everybody is saturated, it's hard to wring it out and recover,” she added.
As a founder, understanding the many causes and responses to grief is a good place to start in supporting your team and building a structure to support them. A few foundational resources to learn more about causes, symptoms, and related topics around grief include:
2. Acknowledge grief: Name the experience so others can do the same
In times of collective grief, speaking openly and authentically about your experience can go a long way toward creating a safe space for your team to share and process their feelings — and feel empowered to express their individual needs if and when they face a personal loss.
In a 2020 interview related to the collective grief emerging during the pandemic, grief expert and author David Kessler said, “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”
Naming grief and acknowledging the experience, Nikki noted, is also an important act of “grief leadership,” or the ability of a leader to expand their understanding, authentically express their own experiences, and empathize with their team. “When people see their experience of loss acknowledged, they feel valued and supported as a human,” she said.
As a founder, how you share your experience around collective grief will vary, depending on the norms you’ve established to communicate with your team, but it could take the form of a company-wide email, a recorded video, or time devoted to expressing your feelings in a monthly meeting. However you share, Nikki advised, aim for authenticity: “What people don’t want to see is you reading a scripted response to loss. We want to see that our leaders are authentically interested in leaning into this and learning and showing up. When a founder can do that, all of a sudden the culture can change within a group, within a team, within a company.”
If you find yourself intimidated by the prospect of speaking publicly about grief or stepping into grief leadership generally, reach out for support. This is a big responsibility, and recognizing that you might need help navigating this part of your role is a sign of self-awareness and will ultimately make your message more effective. “Founders have to find the helpers,” Nikki said. “Maybe it’s a chief of staff or a communications lead, or a coach who can help you organize and draft your thoughts to speak to loss in a way that’s both authentic and sensitive to the moment. Get the support you need to do this well.”
3. Nurture a supportive culture: Create opportunities to learn
As a leader committed to understanding and normalizing grief, you can help your team do the same by providing opportunities for folks to learn about grief and how to support one another through loss.
“I think it is incumbent on founders, especially, to provide education and training around grief. You have the power to raise awareness and expand your team’s knowledge,” Nikki said. “The understanding and skills that help people communicate and support one another don’t come through osmosis — these are things that can be taught and learned.”
Leslie Barber, who founded Grief Warrior after losing her husband to cancer and who currently leads specialty coaching at BetterUp, authored a whitepaper that outlines the steps that organizations and managers can take to empower teams to navigate loss. She highlighted the key role that training and education around grief can play in an organization — especially around recognizing and respecting grief, language and tools for managers to compassionately address grief and uncomfortable emotions, and creating a more radically compassionate company culture.
If you’re looking to support your team through training, there are a variety of resources to connect with grief coaches and counselors for online or in-person training. A search via the International Coaching Federation for a certified grief coach is a good place to start.
In-person grief coaching and training can offer practical experience for founders and teams that recorded or text resources may lack. “Group coaching and one-on-one training that allows people to practice responding to specific situations and get professional feedback can create a valuable ripple effect through the organization,” Nikki said.
4. Honor the individual griever: Communicate with sensitivity
Communication with folks who experience personal losses — and sharing news of loss with the company, when appropriate — should be focused on acknowledging and supporting the griever in a way that respects their unique situation.
When someone on your team experiences a loss, it can be hard to know what to say. The result is that many of us don’t say anything at all, believing we are respecting the person by giving them space. But that space can be isolating. Just as it’s important to acknowledge collective grief as a leader, acknowledging personal loss among your employees is also an important act of grief leadership.
“We don’t like discomfort. If something is too inconvenient or too uncomfortable, many of us look away,” wrote Leslie Barber. But, she added, it’s our responsibility to break through that discomfort. “We must acknowledge grief, whether it is personal or collective. We must name it, even if it is awkward and uncomfortable. Most grieving people want to share about their grief, but no one asks. It’s the acknowledgment that truly honors grief, not the ignoring.”
If you’re wondering what to say to offer support to a team member, Nikki recommended a few starting points for communicating with empathy and sensitivity in a recent BetterUp blog post:
“What’s most important to you right now?” (Then be quiet and listen.)
“I’m so sorry you are going through this right now. Please know that I care and my intention is to listen and help. What would help you the most right now?”
“Let’s talk about what needs to get done and see if there are ways we can leverage the team vs. YOU needing to do all of this.”
“That sounds really hard. I’m sorry.” Sometimes it helps just to know that someone else recognizes your pain.
In addition to meaningful personal communication with a griever, you’ll want to thoughtfully consider whether and how to share the news with the rest of the team. There isn't one go-to best practice for founders to follow when it comes to communicating about personal loss to their team. That’s because each person will have their own distinct experience, have specific needs around privacy, and require different types of support. Grievers' needs can vary widely, so really the best practice is to do what you can to align with what the individual wants and needs.
To understand how to care for someone and respond with what they need and want, go to the source. Do not assume that someone does or doesn’t want their colleagues to know what’s happening. Ask the person if and how they want information shared about their experience. “Some people will want news shared because they will take comfort in the support of their co-workers; some people will want to maintain privacy," Nikki said. "It’s all about understanding their needs and supporting them through the experience.”
5. Create scaffolding for support: Offer benefits that meet your team’s needs
Offering your team benefits that acknowledge the impact of grief is the right thing to do to support them through loss — and increasingly necessary to attract and retain employees. “Founders need to recognize that expectations are changing around bereavement leave and other benefits that support people through grief,” Nikki said. “The people you hire expect to be treated as human beings with full, complicated lives outside of work.”
There is no federal law requiring employers to provide time off (paid or unpaid) after the loss of a loved one. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, most employers in the U.S. offer two to four days of paid time off for bereavement leave, a standard that doesn’t acknowledge the experience of grief or the non-linear process of grieving. The good news, though, is that many leaders are recognizing the need to revise these policies to offer employees more flexible and relevant support over the long term.
“We’ve seen a big change recently in awareness,” Nikki said. “A few years ago, hardly anyone was thinking about this, but today many companies have an expanded bereavement leave.” That shift is reflected in the current consensus among grief experts, who now recommend 20 days of bereavement leave for the loss of a close family member.
While this shift in attitude is helpful, it’s important for founders who are shaping policies to keep in mind that grief can result from many other life-changing losses beyond the death of a loved one, and flexibility is essential to support the depth and breadth of grief. “Someone may experience a miscarriage, they may be a caregiver for a loved one who has a long-term illness, or they may be going through divorce,” Nikki said. “In any of those cases, which we refer to as ‘ambiguous losses,’ the trajectory is long, and people may need time off at various points along the journey. It’s not a linear process.”
To address the variety of experiences of loss, types of grief, and widely different timelines for grieving, companies can offer “emergency time off,” or ETO, as an open-ended option to extend or supplement bereavement leave.
In addition to reviewing (and potentially revising) your bereavement leave and ETO policies, consider what mental health support you’re currently providing your team. Do your employees have access to counseling services through an employee assistance program (EAP)? If so, be sure employees who are experiencing loss are aware of that benefit and understand how to access support. And, if you want to take things a step further, consider providing supplemental stipends to cover the cost of grief counseling or coaching that might exceed any benefit coverage.
Get what you need to meet the needs of your team
In all the steps you can take as a founder to support your team through grief — individually and collectively — remember that the goal is to create an environment where people feel safe and supported. And by “people,” we mean you, too.
Grief leadership can take a toll on you as a leader, especially when you’re navigating periods of loss in your own life. It’s important for leaders to practice self-care. “Ask yourself what you need to continue to lead through periods of loss," Nikki advised. "Do you need extra time in your calendar to process or rest? Would you benefit from coaching or counseling to navigate feelings or conversations?” As you support your team, don’t forget to advocate for your own needs and make time and space to acknowledge and sit with your own experience.
Ultimately, while taking on the responsibility of grief leadership will likely be challenging at times, showing up for yourself and for your team by acknowledging loss and giving and receiving support will help nurture a culture that will benefit you and your business for the long term.